The Death Penalty Information Center has released its annual Year End analysis of the state of capital punishment in this country. Go here to read the entire report, “The Death Penalty in 2018: Year End Report.”
2018: Death Penalty in Florida
Of course, the State of Florida is included in this yearly recap on both death sentences and executions, as well as exonerations for those living on Florida’s Death Row. What were the major events insofar as capital punishment in Florida during the past twelve months?
Seven Death Sentences
Last year, Florida tied with Texas as having the most death sentences imposed during 2018. Both states saw seven (7) individuals sentenced to death. Together with California and Ohio, these four states were responsible for over half of all death sentences last year (57%).
Fourteen states and the federal government imposed death sentences in 2018, but 57% of those sentences came from just four states: Texas and Florida (both with seven) and California and Ohio (both with five). Even as the backlog of cases from two years of uncertainty about the constitutionality of Florida’s sentencing procedures increased the number of capital trials in the state, the new law barring judges from imposing the death penalty without a unanimous jury recommendation for death resulted in at least four life sentences that might previously have produced death verdicts.
2. One Exoneration: Clemente Javier Aguirre
Florida saw one Florida Death Row Inmate freed during the year 2018. Mr. Clemente Javier Aguire left prison in November, after being sentenced to death 12 years earlier. Key appellate arguments here included challenges to DNA evidence as well as credibility of one of the state’s key witness.
Clemente Javier Aguirre was exonerated from Florida’s death row on November 5, after jury selection for his retrial had already begun. He was the 28th death-row prisoner exonerated in Florida. Aguirre was convicted and sentenced to death in 2006 of the murder of two neighbors–an elderly woman and her adult daughter–in 2004. He steadfastly maintained his innocence, saying he had discovered the women after they had been killed. He did not report the murders to authorities, he said, because he was an undocumented immigrant and feared deportation. The prosecution’s chief witness against Aguirre was Samantha Williams, the mentally ill daughter and granddaughter of the victims. During the post-conviction process, Aguirre’s lawyers discovered that Williams had confessed to at least five different people that she had killed her relatives. None of the DNA found on the 84 items from the crime scene that were tested matched Aguirre. Most blood samples matched the two victims, and Samantha Williams’s DNA was found on eight bloodstains collected from four different rooms. As with more than 90% of Florida’s death-row exonerees, Aguirre had been sentenced to death by non-unanimous jury recommendations under Florida’s unconstitutional capital sentencing scheme.
3. Execution of Eric Branch Despite Non-Unanimous Jury and SCOTUS Ruling in Hurst
The Supreme Court of the United States found the Florida statute that allowed for non-unanimous juries to impose death sentences was unconstitutional. SCOTUS held that every single jury member must agree upon capital punishment before death is imposed. However, the Florida Supreme Court later ruled that it would draw a line on the calendar insofar as when Hurst would apply to Florida’s Death Row inmates: if the case was final before June 2002, when the SCOTUS decision in Ring v. Arizona came down, then Hurst would not be applied and the non-unanimous jury death sentence would stand.
The result? Eric Branch was executed by the State of Florida in 2018, despite his jury voting 10-2 for the death penalty.
Two men, Eric Branch in Florida and Walter Moody in Alabama, were executed after non-unanimous juries recommended death sentences. Branch, who was only 21 at the time of his crime, received a 10-2 jury recommendation for death, an outcome that could not produce a death sentence today. In 2016, in Hurst v. Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Florida sentencing scheme under which Branch was tried and condemned. Branch was one of 200 prisoners sentenced under Florida’s unconstitutional statute who still face execution as a result of a Florida Supreme Court ruling that it will enforce Hurst only in cases finalized after June 2002, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided a related case, Ring v. Arizona. In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review 84 Florida cases in which defendants had been sentenced to death under the unconstitutional statute. Alabama law still allows non-unanimous jury recommendations for death, as long as at least 10 jurors agree, but Moody’s 11-1 jury recommendation would result in a life sentence in nearly every other death-penalty state.
For more on Hurst, see:
- Florida Death Penalty, Hurst v. Florida, and Three SCOTUS Justices
- Florida Supreme Court Rules on Post-Hurst Sentencing Hearings
- What Does the New Hurst Decision Mean for Florida Death Penalty?
- Florida Death Row Inmates Getting Review After Hurst
- SCOTUS Dissent as Two More Florida Death Row Petitions Denied